Monday, April 09, 2007

Thoughts from Wanganui

Strobilanthes gossypinus

Our recent trip to Wanganui featured a few fabulous hours spent meandering around the pathways at the delightfully retro Wanganui Garden Centre in Gonville. As I said last week, this garden centre is a throwback to the way garden centres used to be twenty years ago, with an amazing range of plant material, much of it grown by the owners, and an informed and helpful staff who know their plants.
Last week we looked at some of the interesting native plants ranged through the many beds in the nursery, this week we will look at some of the interesting exotic plants, but before we do I must say that the exotic highlight of the journey was something we saw on a Sunday afternoon drive up the Wanganui River road to Pipiriki.
For much of the journey we traveled through groups of naked ladies, as they lined the sides of the road and ran up through the roadside paddocks. We stopped for a look through the amazing Catholic church at Jerusalem, well-known to all old hippies as the haunt of the poet James K Baxter, and even found naked ladies in the convent garden.
I am referring, of course, to Amaryllis bulbs, seen in many shades of pink through to carmine red. I have never seen so many naturalized in one small area. A fabulous sight but back to town.
I had enjoyed my time among the native plants at the Wanganui Garden Centre, seeing a number of new varieties, and a number of old forms I had only read about. The same applied to the exotic plants on offer.
I am a huge fan of foliage in the garden, and can be relied on to make my way to the divaricating plants, much to the Head Gardener’s dismay, as she does not like them at all. However, as well as tiny leaves on erratically branched shrubs I am keen on strongly foliaged shrubs and was intrigued to see a bed of plants with lovely architectural shaped leaves in a most unusual colour. The leaves are greenish but with a hint of silver, and they are topped with fine bronze hairs, more strongly visible on the young leaves. The leaves are interestingly ribbed, like some of the blue Hosta varieties.
The small shrub glories under the name of Strobilanthes gossypinus ‘Persian Shield’, and reportedly grows to about 80 cm high, slightly less around. This is going to look great with other coloured foliage shrubs and perennials and with strap-leaved plants too. I think it will probably look best in a small group. It will look great in pots too, perhaps glazed terracotta pots on the patio.
Although it looks quite hardy – silver foliaged plants usually come from quite hard climates – I think it will probably need protection from frost as Strobilanthes species seem to mainly originate in subtropical areas of the world, and I think this species comes from southern India. In the wild these plants tend to be monocarpic – they only flower once – but this species reportedly takes ten years before it flowers so it will be long-lived in the garden.
In a bed just across the pathway from this solid silver-leaved beauty was a lightly foliaged South American beauty, Calliandra “Blushing Pixie.”
The Calliandras are legumes with very fine foliage, perhaps like a small Albizzia. The flowers are remarkably like an Albizzia as well, a puff of flame coloured stamen bursting out of the fine foliage. They are very easy shrubs to grow, needing light soil and full sun for them to perform at their best. They have light sensitive leaves and they fold up at night, which makes an interesting talking point with children.
Coming closer to home, I was interested to see a new Grevillea in the same bed, one with bright red flowers. It was labelled as Grevillea “Deua Flame”, a name that sounded more Maori than Australian to me, but this is a true blue Aussie.
It is, in fact, a form of the recently described species called Grevillea rhyolitic, previously a part of Grevillea victoriae, often grown in New Zealand.
It occurs naturally in New South Wales and is hardy in temperate climates in well-drained soils and full sun to partial shade. It is seems likely to be tolerant of medium to heavy frost.
It grows to about 1.5 metres high and bears clusters of bright red pendulous flowers in clusters through much of the summer. I am sure this is going to become a very popular variety in New Zealand.
I had a trawl through the fruit trees while we were wandering around and was impressed with the wide range of varieties that were available, including a large number of connoisseur apple and pear varieties. I was intrigued to see the lovely golden apples of the ornamental crab apple, Malus “Golden Hornet”. This is a very popular variety in the United Kingdom but is rare in New Zealand, as we seem to prefer red crab apples like “Jack Humm” or “Gorgeous”.
This is a form of the Japanese group of apple hybrids known as Malus x zumi, and forms a small tree suitable for small to medium gardens. In the spring, it covers itself with white, pink-flushed flowers, and then in the autumn it is covered with smallish yellow apples – smaller than “Jack Humm” or even “Gorgeous”. They seem to survive stripping by birds well into the winter, which is probably a sign that they are sour for a long time. If you are on the lookout for a small deciduous tree with spring flowers and summer fruit you could do worse that look this one out.
The other fruit I saw for the first time was a dwarf form of the Irish Strawberry Tree, Arbutus unedo “Elfin King”. This charming little variety only grows to about two metres high, less if grown in a container, but still produces lovely sweet fruit. This is normally a small to medium sized tree, evergreen and very easy to grow so the dwarf form will prove popular with those with smaller gardens.

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